Innovative cell therapy research boosted by state funds

Article first appeared in Around the O, November 13, 2019.

An innovative new research project from UO’s Robert Guldberg has captured the attention of Oregon’s economic development agency Business Oregon and the UO’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

Guldberg’s $1.2 million project, which zeroes in on one of the central challenges of the fast-growing cell therapy industry, is the first to tap into the University Innovation Research Fund. The new state fund is designed to support research at Oregon universities that drives innovation and economic development.

The manufacturing sector around cell therapy — repair or replacement of tissues such as bone, cartilage, blood vessels and skin — is a rapidly growing biomedical market. Guldberg’s project, which is co-funded by the Department of Defense, could help make Oregon a player in a sector that is projected to be worth $8 billion to $10 billion within the next decade.

Cell therapy has potential applications for everything from treating cancers to repairing spinal cord injuries to improving weakened immune systems. But one of the limitations of current methods of manufacturing is the high cost and variability of using animal-based culture media, Guldberg says.

The standardized media that Guldberg and his collaborators are seeking to develop could help accelerate the development and manufacturing of regenerative medicine products.

“The impact of this project will be to develop and validate chemically defined and animal-free culture media that cost-effectively meets cell manufacturing industry standards and needs,” said Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. “This project could help enable greater availability of new cell therapies to more patients and for a broader range of clinical applications.”

Department of Defense funding for the project comes through the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium supported by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command program and in partnership with RegenMed Development Organization.

“Not only does this research promise to lead to novel therapeutic treatments for patients but it will also open new doors for engagement with industry partners and the Department of Defense — for UO researchers but also for other state research universities and biotechnology enterprises,” said David Conover, vice president for research and innovation.

Conover stressed the collaborative elements that gave rise to the University Innovation Research Fund, which represents a unique partnership between Oregon universities and Business Oregon. Working with the state’s business development agency, he and other senior research officers from Oregon’s public universities successfully advocated for a state fund that would help attract more federal funds to support economic development.

“We made the case before the state Legislature and they came through with the funding,” Conover said. “It’s a real triumph and proof that our public universities can work together to achieve benefits for the state of Oregon.”

State Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said he was proud to support the passage of the fund.

“We know that Oregon’s research universities are frequently competing for federal grants that could contribute to the state’s well-being, but often they require nonfederal funding as a match, Rayfield said. “This fund is a way for the state to show our commitment to innovation and economic development, and I’m excited about this first project and many more to come. It’s going to have a big return on investment for Oregon.”

Projects supported by the innovation fund not only must fuel innovation and commercialization of technology from Oregon’s public universities but must also align with priority industries, such as advanced manufacturing, high technology, outdoor gear and apparel, health care innovation, food and beverage, and forestry and wood products. Guldberg’s project checked several of these boxes, said Chris Harder, director of Business Oregon.

“The state of Oregon strongly supports innovation at our state’s universities and we see great potential in Dr. Guldberg’s groundbreaking research in the rapidly growing field of cell therapy manufacturing,” Harder said. “This award and the collaborative project behind it shows the potential we have to grow biotechnology industries in Oregon.”

An internationally renowned researcher and entrepreneur in the regenerative medicine field, Guldberg is well-positioned to lead the state’s efforts to expand its cell manufacturing sector. He has co-founded five companies and is the past president of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society Americas Chapter.

Before arriving at the UO from Georgia Tech to lead the Knight Campus, Guldberg helped lead a successful application to the National Science Foundation to establish a Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies and participated in the development of a national roadmap for cell manufacturing in partnership with federal agencies, several universities and numerous biotech companies, including several companies with a presence in Oregon. 

The project has already amassed a long list of industry collaborators and is expected to attract more interest moving forward as new partnerships are established through the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium.

“Through participating in these consortia, Oregon has the opportunity to tap into investment from these industry partners as well as create new technologies with the potential to lead to new start-up companies,” Guldberg said.

Another benefit of participation, Guldberg says, is the training of Oregon students in a rapidly growing field and therefore job creation. Cost share on the project will fund three undergraduate scholars to help fulfill the scope of work but also provide them with experiential training and mentorship from senior staff scientists.

Kate Petcosky-Kulkarni, UO’s director of strategic research initiatives, is hopeful other researchers will follow Guldberg’s lead and apply for matching funding through the University Innovation Research Fund.

“The program creates a new research opportunity that wasn’t there a year ago,” Petcosky-Kulkarni said. “It effectively ups the ante and allows faculty to apply for funds that they might not otherwise pursue due to high match requirements.”

UO researchers interested in applying for matching funds through the University Innovation Research Fund can find more information online. Potential applicants are required to contact Research Development Services at to discuss the project before preparing the application materials to confirm alignment with project goals. 

—By Lewis Taylor, University Communications